David Reid | The Brazen Age: New York City and the American Empire: Politics, Art, and Bohemia | Pantheon | March 2016 | 31 minutes (8,514 words)
The excerpt below is adapted from The Brazen Age, by David Reid, which examines the “extraordinarily rich culture and turbulent politics of New York City between the years 1945 and 1950.” This story is recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky.
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Probably I was in the war.
—NORMAN MAILER, Barbary Shore (1951)
A hideous, inhuman city. But I know that one changes one’s mind.
In march 1946 the young French novelist and journalist Albert Camus traveled by freighter from Le Havre to New York, arriving in the first week of spring. Le Havre, the old port city at the mouth of the Seine, had almost been destroyed in a battle between its German occupiers and a British warship during the Normandy invasion; huge ruins ringed the harbor. In his travel journal Camus writes: “My last image of France is of destroyed buildings at the very edge of a wounded earth.”
At the age of thirty-two this Algerian Frenchman, who had been supporting himself with odd jobs when the war began, was about to become very famous. By 1948, he would become an international culture hero: author of The Stranger and The Plague, two of the most famous novels to come out of France in the forties, and of the lofty and astringent essays collected in The Myth of Sisyphus.
Camus’s visit to the United States, sponsored by the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs but involving no official duties, was timed to coincide with Alfred A. Knopf’s publication of The Stranger in a translation by Stuart Gilbert, the annotator of James Joyce’s Ulysses. In the spring of 1946 France was exporting little to the United States except literature. Even most American readers with a particular interest in France knew of Camus, if at all, as a distant legend, editor of the Resistance newspaper Combat and an “existentialist.”
Reviewing The Stranger in the New Yorker, Edmund Wilson, usually omniscient, confessed that he knew absolutely nothing about existentialism except that it was enjoying a “furious vogue.” If there were rumored to be philosophical depths in this novel about the motiveless murder of an Arab on a North African beach, they frankly eluded him. For Wilson the book was nothing more than “a fairly clever feat”—the sort of thing that a skillful Hemingway imitator like James M. Cain had done as well or better in The Postman Always Rings Twice. America’s most admired literary critic also had his doubts about Franz Kafka, the writer of the moment, suspecting that the claims being made for the late Prague fabulist were exaggerated. But still, like almost everyone else, especially the young, in New York’s intellectual circles Wilson was intensely curious about what had been written and thought in occupied Europe, especially in France.
“Our generation had been brought up on the remembrance of the 1920s as the great golden age of the avant-garde, whose focal point had been Paris,” William Barrett writes in The Truants, his memoir of the New York intellectuals. “We expected history to repeat itself: as it had been after the First, so it would be after the Second World War.” The glamorous rumor of existentialism seemed to vindicate their expectations. Camus’s arrival was eagerly awaited not only by Partisan Review but also by the New Yorker, which put him in “The Talk of the Town,” and Vogue, which decided that his saturnine good looks resembled Humphrey Bogart’s. Read more…
Eric Foner | Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad | W. W. Norton & Company | January 2015 | 31 minutes (8,362 words)
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The history of slavery, and of fugitive slaves, in New York City begins in the earliest days of colonial settlement. Under Dutch rule, from 1624 to 1664, the town of New Amsterdam was a tiny outpost of a seaborne empire that stretched across the globe. The Dutch dominated the Atlantic slave trade in the early seventeenth century, and they introduced slaves into their North American colony, New Netherland, as a matter of course. The numbers remained small, but in 1650 New Netherland’s 500 slaves outnumbered those in Virginia and Maryland. The Dutch West India Company, which governed the colony, used slave labor to build fortifications and other buildings, and settlers employed them on family farms and for household and craft labor. Slavery was only loosely codified. Slaves sued and were sued in local courts, drilled in the militia, fought in Indian wars, and married in the Dutch Reformed Church. When the British seized the colony in 1664, New Amsterdam had a population of around 1,500, including 375 slaves. Read more…
[Fiction] A story about an unemployed ethnomusicologist, gray whales, and Miranda July:
‘Garfield was my favorite president,’ said Brandon.
‘James A. Garfield?’ said Kara. ‘President from March to July of 1881?’
‘From Ohio?’ she said.
‘That’s the one,’ said Brandon.
He said: ‘I think he would have proven to be an effective leader if he’d been given the chance.’
Charles put his hand on Kara’s knee.
‘That’s funny,’ said Charles. ‘Garfield’s killer, Charles Guiteau, is my favorite presidential assassin, and it’s not just because we share a name.’
A father and son visit a collector of Nazi paraphernalia in the mountains of southwestern North Carolina:
My father glanced over his shoulder at me and emitted a wheeze-burst of laughter—an exhalation intended to express disbelief. He had led me to an underground vault containing the artifacts of the last century’s most brutal regime, and he now seemed downright giddy. I, on the other hand, didn’t know what to think or what to say. I found it difficult to process what any of this meant. That is, I didn’t know why it was here, how it had gotten from where it had been made to where it was now. Were we in the presence of some kind of monster? Or had he created this space for stuff he deemed historically significant, buried it in a moisture-controlled vault because he fancied himself one of history’s unbiased curators? Was this the product of an obsessive and sympathetic mind, one which interpreted the mainstream records of history as having been unduly cruel to the Third Reich, which had been a movement, in his eyes, about nationalism, about ancestors, about revering and honoring the past? I didn’t know. And, honestly, I was afraid to ask.
First you should know: I was born with a blue butt.
So was my mother.
Thirty-two years and many thousands of miles of land, sky, and sea separated her creation from mine, yet we emerged the same: wailing, mad for first breaths, 10-fingered, 10-toed, chick-like tufts of black hair nested atop our soft skulls, and, incredibly, a wavy-bordered blue spot not unlike that of Rorschach’s inkblots, blooming across our tiny bums—blue like ice-cold lips, blue like the ocean at midnight, Picasso’s most melancholic bluest of blues.
By the time I learned about my blue butt, it was gone. Like a spy’s secret message written in vanishing ink, the spot disappeared sometime after my fourth birthday. The timing seems strange—to think that as soon as I could form my earliest memories, my blueness had already left me. In one such memory, I recall taking a shower with my mother. The water beat down on my shoulders thunderously. I’d misbehaved (perhaps, refused to wash my hair), and as I slid open the mottled glass door to escape, my mother smacked my bottom. Because this is my earliest butt-related memory, I mined it recently, hoping to uncover any clues of my former blue self. I remember wailing in the showy way children do when they’re old enough to know better, then peering behind me for proof: the fierce, fiery outline of my mother’s hand. But I can recall nothing but plain tush. I was neither red nor blue. We stood as nude as newborns, un-shy in our nakedness, water cascading across my mother’s towering body as she fumed and I wept in her shadow. Read more…
I listened to PJ Harvey’s 2011 album Let England Shake obsessively while researching people who were sickened or died as a result of their work building nuclear weapons. The album is both simple folk storytelling, and a timeless work about war in the grand tradition of Goya or Hemingway; like the best writers, she turns discrete stories into a broader lens through which to view the world. The music helped me grapple with what each data point of suffering and sacrifice meant, the contradictions in our national remembrance of the cold war, and the forces still shaping that memory.
Tom Swick was the travel editor of a “medium sized newspaper in a small Florida city,” an envied and somewhat trivialized position, until it wasn’t. In LARB, he considers his career and the role travel writing plays for an audience that doesn’t get much vacation — and doesn’t share his inherent curiosity about the world.
9/11 brought a temporary end to envy of my job — suddenly nobody was jealous of frequent flyers — while at the same time elevating my status. Terrorism turned travel into something vital, threatened, precious, political.
Americans eventually started traveling again, but things did not return to normal. In my local bookstore, the travel narrative section began, inexorably, to shrink. When people said to me, “Travel writer — what a great job!” I was now tempted to ask: “Really? What was the last travel book you read?” The memoir had long been in the ascendant, which was strange; if anything, 9/11 should have made us fervently, desperately curious about the world. But as a nation we seemed to be turning our gaze inward, to our childhoods, our relationships, our obsessions, our phobias, our disorders, our illnesses, our addictions. It was helpful to our understanding of human nature, which is obviously an important part of being a member of the species. But we were also citizens of the world — the most powerful at that; didn’t we have a responsibility to learn about it? Abroad, people were astonished when I told them that only about a quarter of Americans possessed a passport. And this, I imagined them thinking, is the country that’s calling the shots?
There are countries whose citizens, without ever leaving, can’t help but be exposed to the foreign; in the United States, the exposure frequently never goes beyond the table. Years ago, the Travel Channel devolved into a kind of offshoot of the Food Network, more or less proving that, here, abroad is acceptable only if served on a plate. We do not import other countries’ TV shows, with the exception of England’s, which doesn’t really count. Some of us listen to world music, but not in the numbers that NPR would like. At night you can surf through all of your movie channels and never find a foreign film. Of the books published here every year, only three percent are works in translation. It is said that one must first love oneself before one can hope to love another, but the United States seems dangerously stuck on itself. Yes, there’s France and Italy — the book publishing darlings — but they’re viewed, because they’re so often depicted, more as pleasure gardens than real countries.